Alone on the Marshes – A day in the life of an environmental consultant – March 2020

land check studd feb 2020

Enjoying the solitude while surveying on the marshes.

At the beginning of March few of us could foresee how rapidly life would change for us all.

Indeed for much of the month my work carried on as normal. Visiting sites, talking about land management and anticipating a great spring of wader surveys with the land looking wetter than ever.

At times this month I have thanked my lucky stars at having a job where social isolation is the norm. In fact I have often felt that in order to do much of my job you have to be someone very good at dealing with your own company as I spend long days on my own on the marshes with only the sheep to talk to.

 
As the month progressed and the impact of the virus on everyone’s life became apparent I still felt that, in my working world at least, I was immune. Right up until the lock down I was spending days wandering fields with skylarks singing overhead and the waves crashing on the shore of the Thames.

 
Out there, in the fields, life felt normal and panic buying and worries over the health of loved ones seemed many miles away. I have been extremely grateful for every moment out on site this month.

checking for water voles at keith studdI have also been very grateful to keep working. Throughout March I have been working with Natural England on a fabulous project undertaking assessments on designated sites across North Kent. Most of the sites have RAMSAR, SPA and SSSI status and my role was to visit sites and update the assessment.

 
This involved looking at the general condition of the land for wintering and breeding wildfowl and waders, undertaking a search for water vole signs and testing water quality for nitrates and phosphates.

 
Most of the sites were well known to me through my work on the North Kent Marshes Breeding Wader project but I also had the opportunity to visit one or two totally new sites which was a real treat and gave me an insight into how many areas would be suitable for breeding waders given the right advice and management.

 
Luckily all the site visits were completed before the lockdown and the last two weeks have been spent indoors busily typing up the results.
snipe on cooling marshNormally being stuck indoors on a laptop as spring progresses outside would drive me mad but, with travel restricted, even this has given me the opportunity to walk the marshes, if only in my mind. At times the sad news of rising death tolls has been forgotten as in my head I spotted snipe in the rushes or warily eyed the cattle in the next field.

 
With the opportunity for undertaking my normal survey work currently looking remote I will remember those moments this spring and look forward to a time when I can get back out into the fields again

Who’s watching who?

birdwatching on solar farm

I’m watching the birds but who’s watching me?

Another day, another bird survey but this morning it felt different. Yesterday, while undertaking a survey on a remote site with no public access, I had been watched through a telescope by a local birder. He took photos of me with a long lens and posted them on Twitter in the misguided belief I was doing my job incorrectly.

Of course I was upset by his attempt to discredit me but more than that I felt invaded. It made me feel vulnerable in a way that the isolation and the herds of cows and the occasional meeting with a shepherd or a gamekeeper never does.

People often ask me if I feel scared being in the countryside early in the morning on my own and I say truthfully that I never do. It is because to me the solitude is sanctuary and the occasional lone man I meet stops to have a friendly chat.

Now I feel watched, spied upon by a man with angry thoughts running through his head. I worry about the photos he took knowing that, a few minutes before he took the photo he had posted on twitter, I had pulled down my trousers and had a wee in the long grass. Did he take a photo of that too?

I sympathise with the desire to collect evidence to right some perceived wrong. I once took photos of an ecologist collecting dead lizards from a site after the bulldozers had been on but I took the photos openly and presented them to the local wildlife crime officer not posted them on social media for the person to be publicly tried without jury.

This morning out on another site at 6am I felt different. I wondered where he was, this man with his camera. Hiding behind a bush? Papping me from the windows of the Sheerness train? Watching me from a parked car? I crossed my legs when nature called and walked on, my solitude and privacy gone.

On Chislet Marshes

by MLP

by MLP

As a child I always wanted to be a ‘naturalist.’ I pictured myself heading out for long days in the field with a net over my shoulder to catch all things which swam or flew and a hand lens on a strap around my neck to identify rare plants.

Surveying ditches for the Internal Drainage Board might not sound like such a thrilling occupation to some but it allows me to live my childhood dream. So yes, I get odd looks tramping through the undergrowth in a floppy hat and binoculars. So, yes, I am bored of hearing “Going fishing darling?” from ‘funny man’ dog walkers. Yes, yes, I have days where I spend hours fighting my way through thistle jungles and swaying from heat stroke but I also get to places that few other people are allowed to see, field edges, hidden copses, tangly brooks. I see private glimpses of wildlife, a hovering kingfisher, a cormorant, silver bubbled, slipping underwater in search of fish, sky dancing marsh harriers, wildlife with it’s back turned, not expecting to encounter a person out here where few are ever seen.

This is not a gentle stroll along a footpath, they are, as a friend recently said, ‘hard miles.’ but I love being out all day in the countryside, seeing no one and having a purpose. It is a privilege and I never forget it.

On Wednesday I was out on Chislet Marshes, a vast sea of wheat fields winding their way in from the sea, watched over by the eye of Reculver Towers ever present on the horizon. I had walked many miles along the reed fringed Shuart Dyke, testing the water quality, noting the diversity of plants, searching for water voles.

At lunch time I lay with my head on my bag on a wooden bridge covered with lichens and watched the clouds build and swell . Swallows skimmed inches above the water, almost grazing my chest as they crossed the bridge. I contemplated a skinny dip, fancying the prospect of baking myself dry on the sun warmed timbers beneath me, but the water had high nitrate content (I had tested it) and looked none to inviting. I knew from experience that even the loveliest looking streams could hold nasty surprises, having lowed myself into a brook last year I emerged with a leach stuck to my foot merrily sucking my blood.

Besides, I had already been caught  in a compromising position once that day. I go slightly feral on the marshes in the summer and forget what normal behaviour is. With no one to be seen for miles I had been having a wee quite out in the open when the seaside train to Whitstable had flashed past. I had quite forgotten about the railway line, hidden in a dip. The driver, and passengers got a vision which might scar them for life. Maybe I was becoming more of a naturist than a naturalist.

 

 

What would you take to a deserted island?

toasting a successful first day

I have always loved islands. When faced with troubled times or too much of life and people I have often chosen to vanish to an island. Once to the beautiful Holy Island in Northumberland, to retreat to a place where the causeway was covered with the tide for much of the day. Twice to the Scilly Isles where I revelled in the luxury of doing nothing. Now I am off on the second leg of my Estuary Life tour and am going to spend the solstice on a deserted island in the Medway river. I am being ferried across  by hovercraft on Saturday evening and will spend the longest night of the year in blissful solitude.

But what do you take to a desert island. I have chosen my book, an ancient Richard Mabey book on wild plants and I have chosen my piece of music, Diamond Mine by King Creosote and Jon Hopkins, my luxury? I guess it’s my camera although it might be toilet roll!  But I am hoping the real luxury is to spend 24 hours on my own, to be transported somewhere with no one and nothing to be responsible for, no e-mail, no phone, no lawn needing mowing and house needing cleaning and work demanding to be attended to. I wish to leave a note on my inbox and on my door, a message on my phone.

Gone to the Island, back soon.